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A long time ago…

June 7, 2009

The 20th Century Fox logo. The Lucasfilm Ltd. logo. The last strains of Alfred Newman’s extended 20th Century Fox Fanfare ring-out in the theatre before… Darkness. Silence. A pregnant pause.

And then, ten words in blue appear on the screen:

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....

We are about to enter another world.

This is not the world of everyday concerns — of bills and deadlines, car repairs and grocery shopping — this is the world of myth.

Let’s turn again to the first function of mythology. Myths are, first and foremost, meant to point indirectly to that which is inaccessible to rationality: namely, the ground of being. Call it God, Brahman or the Force, this by its very nature transcends all ordinary categories of thought. This is the time beyond time, the space beyond space, the reality beyond reality. You can’t put rational constraints on this any more than you can grab hold of a jet of steam — it defies rational explication.

Myths, then, must use a language that itself transcends rationality. They must use the language of metaphor.

Taken metaphorically, a “long time ago” isn’t so much a literal when as it is a reference to the eternal, transcendent time. Just as “a galaxy far, far away” is not any particular galaxy but rather a world “off the map” of conscious understanding, the story of Star Wars is set in the mythic timeframe where the imagination is free to roam.

Indigenous Australians have a wonderfully apt name for this mythic timeframe: the Dreamtime. Like dreams, myths grow out of the unconscious, but whereas dreams are typically drawn from the library of accumulated experiences that is the personal unconscious, myths at heart are products of the collective unconscious, that storehouse of primordial archetypes fashioned by millions of years of evolution. As Campbell put it, dreams are private myths and myths are public dreams.

Today, cinema is perhaps the greatest artistic medium for creating these “public dreams”. Not many films reach the heights of universal myth, but when they do… wow! The audience feel elevated, elated, transformed by the experience, as if they were collectively transported to another world for two hours. “Suspension of disbelief” is merely the act of opening yourself up to receive the images onscreen as metaphors; what matters is not whether this could happen in real life but rather whether this could happen in your dreams (or nightmares).

Luke in the cave

Luke confronts his inner demons

And so, just as Luke Skywalker enters the cave to find that which lurks within, so do we enter the cinema to probe the depths of our own psyches.

The characters onscreen are thus not intended to represent real people any more than Sleeping Beauty could be confused for a real princess — these are all archetypes made flesh in the flicker of 24 frames per second. The transcendent resides within each and every one of us, and Luke and Vader, Leia and Han are the players in an internalised cosmic drama that stretches beyond time itself.

“A long time ago” is a long time ago indeed.

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